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Month: September, 2016

SAINT RADEGUND

Vienna, 19th September 2016

There is a small street which gives on to Piazza Duomo in Milan, which goes by the name of via Santa Radegonda. It’s a very modest, narrow, little street, really quite boring. Its main claim to fame is that it runs alongside the posh department store La Rinascente.

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But I like the street, for the quite frivolous reason that I like the name. Radegonda, Radegund in the original German: now that’s a girl’s name with some whoomph to it! Not like Amelia, or Olivia, or Emily, which are currently some of the most popular names for little British girls.

This particular Radegund was a 6th Century princess from Thuringia, in what is now central Germany. Her life story was as colourful as her name. Her father, Berachtar, was one of three kings in Thuringia. Her uncle, Hermanfrid, one of the other Thuringian kings, killed her father in battle, took over his part of the Thuringian lands, and while he was at it took Radegund into his household. Hermanfrid then made a deal with the Frankish king, Theuderic, to share sovereignty of the whole of Thuringia, subject to material aid from Theuderic. Having sealed the deal, Hermanfrid attacked, defeated, and killed the third king of Thuringia, his brother Baderic. He then promptly reneged on his agreement with Theuderic. Not surprisingly, Theuderic sought revenge of this perfidy. Together with his brother Chlothar, he defeated Hermanfrid and took over Thuringia. In the ensuing carve-up, Clothar took charge of Radegund and brought her back to Gaul. All this happened before Radegund was 11, by the way.

Clothar packed Radegund off to one of his villas until she was of a more marriageable age. When she was 19 or so, he married her himself. No doubt it made his claims to Thuringia stronger to have her as his wife. She joined Clothar’s five other wives – Guntheuca, Chunsina, Ingund, Aregund, and Wuldetrada – in what may, or may not, have been a cozy concubinage. In any event, she bore Clothar no children.

By the time Radegund was 30, her only remaining brother was the last surviving male member of the Thuringian royal family. Presumably to head off any pesky competing claims to the Thuringian lands, Clothar had him murdered. At which point, either because she feared for her own life or because she was fed up with all this mayhem, Radegund fled and sought the protection of the Church, eventually founding, when she was about 40, a nunnery in Poitiers. Initially, Clothar tried to get her back but eventually left her alone and focused on expanding his lands at the expense of all those around him, including his brothers (although he had the grace not to kill them to obtain his ends, good manners which did not extend to their sons). By the time he died, he was master of a kingdom stretching from the Pyrenees to Thuringia, and from Brittany to French-speaking Switzerland.

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All these Franks and Thuringians may have been a lying, traitorous, murderous lot, but they had wonderful names. This all rather reminds me of my Favourite History Book, 1066 And All That, my copy of which recently came to light, among many a delighted cry on my part, from the storage box in which it has been lying these last seven years.
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In that book, we are reminded that Anglo-Saxon England was peopled with persons carrying wonderful names:

“Wave of Egg-Kings

Soon after this event Egg-Kings were found on the thrones of all these kingdoms, such as Eggberd, Eggbreth, Eggfroth, etc. None of them, however, succeeded in becoming memorable except in so far as it is difficult to forget such names as Eggbirth, Eggbred, Eggbeard, Eggfish, etc. Nor is it even remembered by what kind of Eggdeath they perished.”

The authors were exaggerating, but not by much.

The murderous goings-on around Radegund also remind me of that other Great Source of Early European History, Asterix. In the album Astérix chez les Goths
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the endemic fighting among the Germanic tribes is well captured.
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(Please note the authors’ take on Gothic names – they exaggerate but not by much)

But I digress, and I think my wife feels I’m letting my childish side get the upper hand here. Let us focus on the saintly Radegund. Already when queen, she was noted for her almsgiving. Once a nun, she cared for the local lepers and other infirm of Poitiers. She was also known for eating nothing but legumes and green vegetables: no fish, no eggs, not even fruit. I’m sure the vegans of today would approve (although even they might find her decision to foreswear fruit a trifle extreme) but to the meat-eating Germanic elites, who spent much of their time hunting, this must have been pretty weird. Here is the most ancient representation of this saintly lady that I found, from a 10th-11th Century manuscript in the Municipal library of Poitiers, where we see Radegund getting herself to the nunnery (to misquote Hamlet).
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As far as I can make out, though, her main claim to religious fame, at least in the Dark and Middle Ages, is that the Byzantine Emperor Justin II gave her a fragment of the True Cross. I hasten to add that he did not do so because he was much taken by Radegund’s saintliness. It was, I’m afraid, a purely political maneuver. Justin wanted to wrest control of the north of Italy from the barbarian Lombards, but for this he needed the help of the (equally barbarian) Franks. The relic, given to an ex-wife of the Frankish king who, though, was still on friendly terms with said king, was the bribe, or, to put it more kindly, the bait. Whatever the reason, the relic which Justin handed over to Radegund was a Really Good relic, and any Medieval religious institution with a Really Good relic was sitting on a goldmine as the pilgrims poured in and spent their money locally. This no doubt was the happy fate of Poitiers, helped along by the fact that Radegund was widely believed to have the gift of healing. Indeed, several miracles around her tomb greatly helped to increase the pilgrim traffic. The result was the building of a church which is a combination of Romanesque and Angevin Gothic styles.
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Sadly, the vicissitudes of history, and more specifically a sack by Huguenots in the 16th Century and the ravages of the French Revolution, combined with some heavy-handed restoration in the 19th Century, has scarred the original splendour.

The pilgrim traffic to Poitiers had the happy side-effect of carrying Radegund’s name far and wide as the pilgrims returned home, and new churches and other religious institutions sprang up all over Europe dedicated to her name. This was certainly the case in Milan, where on the site on which now stands that temple to consumerism, La Rinascente, there once stood a nunnery dedicated to Santa Radegonda. No trace of this nunnery remains today save in the name of that modest, narrow, little street which I like so much.

I give just one further example of the many places in Europe which adopted her name, and that is the small village of Sankt Radegund in Upper Austria. In the next few years, readers will see a new film come out, with the title “Radegund”. It is the story of Franz Jägerstätter, a native of Sankt Radegund, who was the only one in his village to vote against the Anschlüss and was courageous enough to be a conscientious objector during World War II.
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My readers will no doubt convene that this was a dangerous thing to declare oneself to be under the Nazi regime, and in fact Jägerstätter ended up being guillotined in 1943, for the crime of “undermining military morale”. The recent (German) Pope, Benedict XVI, had Jägerstätter beatified: a more appropriate saint for our age, I think.
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Yesterday afternoon, I noticed that behind Milan’s Duomo there is a small road called via Santa Tecla. What an interesting name! I wonder who she was?

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La Rinascente: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/25/fashion/in-milan-with-handbags-and-tongs-under-one-roof.html?_r=0
Clothar I: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chlothar_I
“1066 And All That”: http://rogerandfrances.eu/books/1066-and-all-that
“Asterix chez les Goths”: http://www.asterix.com/the-collection/albums/asterix-and-the-goths.html
Goths fighting: my photo
Radegund entering nunnery: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radegund
Eglise Sainte-Radégonde, Poitiers: https://www.poitiers.fr/c__244_788__Poitiers_capitale_romane.html
Franz Jägerstätter: http://voiceseducation.org/content/franz-jagerstatter-austrian-world-war-ii-resistance
Icon with Franz Jägerstätter: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Franz_Jägerstätter

RINGING BELLS

Milan, 13 September 2016

It wasn’t until our first Sunday back in Milan that I realized what it was we had been missing all those years we had spent in China and Thailand: church bells. The carillon that pealed out from the campanile of the nearby Church of San Giorgio
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for morning mass startled my senses, and I found myself actually listening. Probably Italians, after a lifetime of hearing church bells, simply shut them out: “church bells? what church bells?”

It’s not as if the soundscapes of the cities we have lived in these last seven years have been very different from what we were used to in Europe. Like for everything nowadays, there was a depressing uniformity.  The noise of traffic predominated; given China’s building craze, construction noises came a close second in Beijing. The one typically Chinese noise which we often heard in Beijing was the machine-gun sound of strings of firecrackers going off to celebrate the opening of a new business.
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Since the economy was doing nicely, this happened quite often. The noise of firecrackers grew to a huge crescendo as the Chinese New Year rolled around.

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We were always in awe of the massive amounts of firepower, in the form of firecrackers, fireworks, and other noise-making products, being sold on the streets in the days leading up to the New Year.
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Bangkok was more interesting, noise-wise. From our balcony, as we admired the view over the Chao Phraya river, we would often hear the local muezzin calling the faithful to prayer from the minaret of a nearby mosque. Muslims are a more-or-less tolerated minority in Thailand and as a consequence tend to be very discreet. The Muslim community in our area was no exception. So discreet were they that I never located the minaret and its associated mosque. Was it this one, I wonder? I saw the sign once or twice but never went down the narrow lane to investigate.
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These calls to prayer were counterbalanced by the morning chanting from the Buddhist monks in the temple across the river.
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In Thailand’s current politically charged atmosphere, where an aggressive Buddhism is emerging, one has to wonder if the loudspeaker-enhanced chanting was not calculated to remind the local Muslims of who was in charge, just in case they had forgotten.

There was also a period when a government institution across the river would blare out the royal anthem twice a day, at 8 am and 6 pm, to remind the populace to venerate their king.
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Mercifully, from one day to the next, the loudspeakers fell silent. We never figured out why. But we were thankful for the respite.

Noises from the new religion of our time, fitness, would assail our ears in the early evening, as an aerobic class would start up in the nearby park at Phra Sumen fort, with the disco music booming out over the river, interspersed with the trainer’s shouted instructions and encouragement.

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Memories, all memories now. From now on, our soundscapes will be made up, at least in part, of church bells. Christianity may be fading in Europe, but the bells will remain. They will be ringing out the hours of the day and night (even as I write this, the nearby church bells are striking seven pm). They will call the few remaining faithful to Mass on Sundays. They will toll somberly for our brethren who have departed from this world (“Cold it is, my beloved, since your funeral bell was toll’d: / Cold it is, O my King, how cold alone on the wold!”). I may even witness once more, in a Catholic nation somewhere, the bells of a whole city ringing peel after peel in a mad cacophony to speed the soul of a dead Pope on its way; I heard this in Vienna when Pope John Paul II died.

Yes, these sounds are part of my Christian heritage to which I return after many years of absence.
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San Giorgio: http://www.milano24ore.net/cityinfo/churches/church_of_san_giorgio.php
Fire crackers: http://yourenotfromaroundhere.com/blog/firecrackers-evil-spirit-beijing-china/
Chinese New Year: http://chinesenewyearblog.com/cny-fireworks-victoria-harbor-hong-kong/
Sellers of fireworks: http://iainmasterton.photoshelter.com/image/I0000OGZzPAzdPPM
Mosque Masjid chakrabongse?: http://zlynn17.blogspot.it/2010/02/halal-food-in-banglamphoo.html
Buddhist monks chanting: https://monotonundminimal.wordpress.com/2011/07/28/day-240-bling-bling-bangkok/
Thais venerating the king: http://edition.cnn.com/2014/10/06/world/asia/thailand-king-bhumibol-gallbladder/
Aerobic class Phra Sumen Park: http://www.iamwannee.com/a-nice-walking-path-from-tha-phra-chan-to-tha-phra-athit/

Bells: https://www.modernghana.com/news/530796/every-human-being-dies-everyday-a-lenten-reflection.html

TAMARIND IN THE KITCHEN

Milan, 5 September 2016

So my wife and I have finally left Thailand, after having spent two years there – we lifted off one last time from Bangkok international airport six days ago.

What memories of things typically Thai do I take with me?

Well, there’s tamarind.

Readers may find that a little odd, but tamarind is actually a very common ingredient in Thai cuisine. In fact, it was animatedly discussed at the goodbye party my staff gave me. It’s a fruit I had never actually come across until I arrived in Thailand. I had heard of it, but it existed as an exotica on the far periphery of my knowledge, rather like those strange beings which Medieval Europeans imagined lived on the far edges of the world.
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I was introduced to tamarind by the kind lady who brought me my morning coffee in the office. She was in the habit of also bringing me any of the fruits which Thai colleagues had brought in for sharing. I was conversant with the other fruits she served with my coffee, but this large pod-like thing had me stumped.
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I had to go down the hall to ask colleagues explanations of what it was and how to eat it (split open the brittle shell, extract the pasty fruit from its stringy support and eat, making sure not to crack your teeth on the small, very hard seeds buried inside the sticky pulp).
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Thai cooks will extract the pasty fruit and use it as an ingredient in many of their dishes. I mention only two here, Pad Thai and Kaeng Som.

As probably every foreigner knows, since every foreigner coming to Thailand seems to eat it, Pad Thai is at base a dish of rice noodles, these having then been stir-fried with a whole bunch of things: shrimp, both fresh and dried (other meats are used but it’s not very Thai), shrimp paste in oil, soybean sprouts, firm tofu, chopped peanuts, scrambled egg, sliced shallots, sliced Chinese chives, sliced preserved radishes, minced garlic, sliced chilies, and I don’t know what else. What foreigners probably don’t know, because it’s not obvious in the final dish placed before them, is that a tamarind-based sauce has also been added to the mix during the stir-fry. This sauce is a blend of sour-sweet tamarind paste, salty fish sauce, spicy chili sauce, and sweet palm sugar; the particular balance to strike between these four tastes gives rise to much passionate debate in the Thai recipe world.

My wife was particularly fond of Pad Thai, but it is as popular with Thais as it is with foreigners. In our wanderings around Bangkok, we discovered a Pad Thai joint a little south of the Golden Mount, where the people patiently waiting in the long lines outside (which we quickly joined) were primarily Thai.

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Pad Thai may seem very typically Thai, but actually in its present form it is quite a recent dish, having been invented only in the 1930s as a move by the-then military dictator to promote Thai nationalism. I suspect that Kaeng Som has a much longer culinary pedigree, since it has speciated, with every region of Thailand having its own variant. The variant I describe here is from Central Thailand, this being dominant in Bangkok. It seems that every street food stall sells Kaeng Som, although cognoscenti mutter that this is rat’s piss (my words) compared to the Real Thing. I wouldn’t know; I avoided street food stalls like the plague, desirous of avoiding seriously upset stomachs and consequent absences from work.

Kaeng Som is really a curry base to which you then add other ingredients. You will first grind and pound together, preferably in a stone mortar, chilies, salt, shrimp paste, sliced shallots, and meat of a freshwater fish stripped off the bones, until you have a smooth paste. You will add this to a simmering fish stock (preferably made with the remains of the fish), followed by tamarind paste, fish sauce, and palm sugar. Once again, the sour-salt-spicy-sweet tastes have been brought together, and you will fuss around at this point trying to get the “right” balance.

Now you are ready to add the remaining ingredients. Vegetables dominate, and it seems that Kaeng Som will marry well with a large number of different vegetables. I report, in no particular order, the suggestions given in the blog of Thai cuisine SheSimmers: morning glory, water mimosa, summer squash, cauliflower, green beans, daikon, Napa cabbage, green papaya, chayote, and watermelon rinds. This last interests me greatly, since I have always wondered, as I have thrown away the rinds after a good watermelon binge, what if anything could be done with them in the kitchen. I now have an answer. The same blog warns against the use of certain other vegetables: eggplants, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, starchy root vegetables, and green leafy vegetables such as collard greens. Vegetables as an added ingredient seem quite enough, but if you want you can also add shrimps or pieces of fish.
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At this point, I have to confess to one major unpleasant memory I bring back from Thailand, and that is the (super-)abundant use of chilies in Thai cuisine. As I have reported elsewhere, I very much dislike chili and its ‘hot’ spicy cousins. This has been a major difficulty for me in eating – and enjoying – these or any other Thai dishes. I have also reported elsewhere how I made another popular Thai dish, Tom Yum soup, without chili and found that for me at least it worked perfectly well. If I can find a source of tamarind paste in Milan, I can try making Kaeng Som without the chilies and see what it’s like.

My dislike of hot spices also cuts me off from properly enjoying the use of tamarind in Indian cuisine. The use of tamarind is very popular in India, where the tree is widespread. Unfortunately, every Indian recipe using tamarind also seems to use chilies or something equally spicy. So I guess I will have to make do with Lea & Perrins’s Worcestershire sauce, a small bottle of which graces the condiments section in our kitchen in Milan; as every aficionado of L&P sauce knows, it contains tamarind extract.
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Legend also has it that this sauce has its roots in India. It is said that Messrs Lea and Perrins, pharmacists in Worcester, created their sauce back in the 1830s on the basis of a recipe brought back from Bengal by a certain Lord Sandys, a nobleman of the county. Although I suspect that this story is a bunch of bull, I’m quite happy to believe it, because it allows me to pretend that I am enjoying an Indian sauce, suitably adapted to English tastes, in particular with the use of chilies eliminated. This is yet more support for my argument that chilies are simply not necessary in cooking.

I think I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. I really should spearhead a movement to eliminate chili and its evil cousins from the kitchen. Now that I’m retired and have time on my hands, this is my chance to walk the talk. Chili growers beware!

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Monpods and others: https://sfcdt.wordpress.com/2010/08/page/2/
Unshelled tamarind: http://nutritiousfoods.blogspot.it/2014/10/why-dr-mantena-satyanarayana-raju-says.html
Shelled tamarind: http://lxia.dvrlists.com/tamarind/
Pad Thai: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pad_Thai
Pad Thai restaurant: https://ohmyfoodcoma.wordpress.com/2015/05/31/legendary-pad-thai-at-bangkoks-thip-samai/
Kaeng Som: http://shesimmers.com/2011/06/thai-sour-curry-kaeng-som-แกงส้ม.html
Lea & Perrins sauce: https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lea_%26_Perrins

WE’RE HOME

Milan, 31 August 2016

We touched down at Milan’s Malpensa airport around 8:30 this morning. It was a beautiful day, not too hot. We took the train into Milan, passing first the town of Saronno, home of the eponymous liqueur
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then Garbagnate, home of the Galbusera brand of biscuit.
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After a few more towns, we pulled into Cadorna station, which lies in the shadow of Milan’s castle.
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We decided to walk home, so we wheeled our suitcases out, past the strange sculpture in the station square which finally, several years ago, I figured out was a needle and thread, a reference, no doubt, to the city’s place in the fashion world.
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We made our way through back roads to Corso Magenta. We stopped for a well-deserved cappuccino in a caffé there. While we sipped, we admired the Baroque Palazzo Litta on the other side of the Corso.
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I’ve always had a fondness for the two giants holding up the massive front door, so obviously suffering from the strain.
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On we went down the Corso, past the Church of San Maurizio, which has magnificent 16th Century frescoes painted by Bernardino Luini and his school
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before we turned right and threaded our way through the back roads again, past the mouldering ruins of the palace built by the 3rd century Roman Emperor Maximian,
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on past a disused church which is now a museum dedicated to the 20th century artist Francesco Messina,
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until we came to our road.

We chatted briefly with the doorman about the family as he handed us a large wad of post, accumulated since our last flying visit six months ago. We squeezed the luggage into the small elevator, manhandled it all through the apartment door, flung open the windows, and gazed over at the tower of the Palazzo Stampa-Soncino across the road.
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After eighteen years away, it was good to finally be back home.

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Liquore di Saronno: https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liquore_amaretto
Biscotti Galbusera: http://www.galbusera.it/prodotti/senza-zuccheri-aggiunti/frollini
Castello Sforzesco, Milan: http://www.conilsud.it/2014/come-raggiungerci/
Sculpture, Piazza Cadorna: http://www.solotravel.it/29032011/piazzale-cadorna-a-milano-tra-design-e-modernita/6334
Palazzo Litta: http://urbanfilemilano.blogspot.it/2014/05/zona-porta-magenta-vivere-in-un-gran.html
Two statues, Palazzo Litta: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-italy-lombardy-milan-corso-magenta-palazzo-litta-palace-75431671.html
Frescoes, church of San Maurizio: http://www.donnecultura.eu/?tag=chiese-di-milano
Remains Imperial Palace of Maximian: http://flickeflu.com/photos/40993657@N06/interesting
Sculpture, Francesco Messina: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/309059593155732010/
Tower, Palazzo Stampa Soncino: my photo